Born in Barbados in 1885, Chris Braithwaite was a sailor, a docker, an activist and one of the leading black political voices in 1930s Britain.
How did Chris end up in London?
The short version? He fell in love. The long version? Chris joined the British Merchant Navy as a teenager and sailed the world. He lived in Chicago for a while, but then – during the First World War – returned to the Merchant Navy. After the war, he lived in New York and worked in a bar, before moving to London to work for the Shipping Federation. That’s where he met Edna, a white woman from Stepney who he fell in love with and married, together raising a family of six.
And did the Braithwaites live happily ever after?
Well actually, Chris soon started using the name Jones as a pseudonym. As a member of some pretty radical groups – for the time, at least – Chris didn’t want to be recognised and victimised by his employer. He was a brave, passionate and vocal anti-racist activist, which at the time he needed to be because Chris’s union, the National Union of Seamen (NUS) treated its black members unfairly.
Wait – why was Chris a member of a racist union?
He didn’t have much choice. Despite its institutionalised racism, black seamen had to join the NUS to have any chance of employment. During 1919, there were serious race-related disturbances in port areas of Britain where lots of black and Asian people lived – such as Cardiff and Liverpool. Not only did the NUS failed to condemn members for their involvement in these conflicts, they openly colluded with ship owners – the main propagators of the unrest.
How did he do that?
Throughout his life, Chris challenged racism wherever he saw it, both in and out of the union. History describes Chris as a militant member of the NUS, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Thanks to his education (all self-taught), his influential job as a Shipping Federation agent and his marriage to a white woman, Chris had greater leverage and a reduced risk of deportation than other black ‘troublemakers’.
In 1930, Chris joined the newly formed Seamen’s Minority Movement (SMM) – a rank-and-file group organised by the Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB). He quickly rose to the upper ranks. In 1935, he helped to found the Colonial Seamen’s Association (CSA), which – for the first time – brought together black and Asian colonial seamen in one organisation. This was a major achievement and eventually led to significant breakthroughs in the NUS’s treatment of minority members.
Yes, lots! As well as taking on racism in his own union, Chris was a passionate campaigner for equal rights around the world, even arranging to smuggle weapons to Ethiopia through his maritime links to help the country resist invasion by Mussolini.
Chris’ connections with many anti-racist initiatives from around the world widened the SMM’s links and brought international attention to the NUS’s failure to back the largest black and minority ethnic workforce in Britain. Change came to the NUS, which became a champion of black and minority ethnic workers, but not before Chris’ early death from pneumonia in 1944.